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Personification and anthropomorphism in haiku

Started by AlanSummers, April 01, 2013, 11:35:42 AM

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Excerpt from, "A Commentary on Yagi Mikajo zen kushû" ([Collected Haiku of Yagi Mikajo], Tokyo, Chûsekisha, 2006): "Yagi Mikajo as female "avant-garde" haiku poet" [Joryû "zen'ei" haijin to shite no Yagi Mikajo] by Shiwa Kyôtarô (1954—), a.k.a. Professor Shimoyama Akira, Ph.D., Osaka University of Commerce].

by Shiwa Kyôtarô

. . . Indeed, the generation of Yagi Mikajo was born in the Taishô era (1912-1926); this is the generation which experienced three main historical periods: Taishô, Shôwa (1926-1989), and Heisei (1989 -). Many people consider the greatest turning point of this generation to be "the gap between the pre-war and postwar eras." However, if instead one considers modern history from the viewpoint of a change in social perception of events and a social shift in values, then the promotion of the advancement of women, in an actual sense, may be definitive. In this regard, when looking at the pre- versus post-1960's era, a complete break or shift occurred in society—a point of paradigmatic change. . . .


mata no ma no ubugoe megi no yami e nobi

between thighs
the birth cry stretches into
budding tree darkness

Yagi Mikajo had a baby just like this. In 1954, when this event occurred, it was an era when many ponds, lakes, and rice fields still remained scattered throughout Sakai city; a time when many street stalls set up in front of our neighborhood houses during festival days. Within such a scene, Yagi Mikajo seemed to feel "darkness." It was the "darkness" that was expressed in the novel Kappa [a water sprite, in Japanese folklore], written by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke (1892-1927), and similar to the "darkness" that Shakespeare addressed in Macbeth.

When I was a child, fishermen would come to our house from Sakai harbor, as they wandered through the streets selling sardines, chanting, "Wouldn't you like to try tete kamu iwashi [sardines so fresh they'll bite your fingers]?"

In this way, Yagi Mikajo recalls the past—. That fishermen's sea has disappeared. Today, such a sea does not exist in Sakai city. Although the mythical and elegant place name [for Sakai city], "Hagoromo" [from the Noh plays of Zeami: "heavenly feathered dress"] remains, and people once boasted of "the absolutely whitest seashore in the East," the coastline of Sakai city is now decorated by polluted sediment and foul breezes. The sea, which nature had purified through hundreds of millions, billions of years. The sea, from which our ancestors had fished "tete kamu iwashi" through hundreds, thousands of years. The sea was "cut" between Yagi Mikajo's and my own generation— this is the gendai [contemporary] situation. The actualities of the era cannot help but include darkness.

Through the baptism of the New Rising Haiku, Yagi Mikajo managed to express the "gendai" era in her haiku works, within the current of our contemporary time—in which everything was "cut" apart. In 1957, she published her book of haiku, Benitake. At that time, in the early 1960's, her title of, "The Flag-bearer of Women's Avant-garde Haiku," appeared in many haiku magazines. When we read her writings of that period, it is possible to clearly discern her inclination toward the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. As a result, her various writings were attempts to express "existence [Existenz]" in "extreme/boundary conditions [Grenzsituation]," inclusive of her haiku works. She also wrote numerous challenging essays, in a sense aiming for conceptions possibly beyond her ability to articulate [in prose]; it could be said that her essential character was not that of a philosophical thinker. On the contrary, her definition of "avant-garde" was essentially ambiguous.

Within the darkness: there is no "here"; the real aim of Yagi Mikajo has been to find those vectors or dimensions of existence which touch upon this theme.

In any case, after the publication of Benitake, she began writing essays and criticism for the major haiku magazines, such as Haiku, Haiku Kenkyû [Haiku Study], Haiku to Essay [Haiku and Essays], and many haiku group-journals blossomed out of Kaitei [Ocean Distance; led by Kaneko Tohta], her own journal-group, Hana [Flower], and so on.


Yagi Mikajo (1924-, born as Yagi Michiko, Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture), graduated from Sakai Women's High School (the same institution from which tanka poet Yosano Akiko, 1878-1942, also graduated), and entered Osaka Women's Medical College (now Kansai Medical University). She received her MD Degree from Osaka City University, becoming the first female ophthalmologist in the history of Japan. Following the war, she was first taught haiku in the shasei style by Suzuka Noburo (1887-1971), then by the previously arrested New Rising Haiku poets, Hirahata Seitô and Saitô Sanki, as well as others. She was given the haigô (haiku pen-name) "Mikajo" in emulation of the kanji found in "Yosano Akiko," by Seitô and Sanki. Her haiku style is known as zen'ei (avant-garde) haiku. She engaged in haiku activities not only with the senior poets of the New Rising Haiku movement, but also with the younger postwar haiku poets, such as Kaneko Tohta (1919 -), Suzuki Murio (1919-2004), Akao Tôshi (1925-1981), and others. In 1964, she became the leader of her own journal-group Hana [flower].

As well as a leading postwar haiku poet, she was active as a feminist, and as a commemorator of Yosano Akiko, who had also lived in Sakai City. In 1982, she founded, "The Choral Group Association of Yosano Akiko" [Yosano Akiko o utau kai], becoming the group's director. From the following year, the "Akiko Recital" became an important annual event. In 1986, the first female prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland (1939 -), became interested in Yosano Akiko, as the Japanese representative had previously quoted from her poetry at the UN Conference on Women, 1985. Mikajo, in an international spirit of friendship, became a founding patron of the "Yosano Akiko Bilingual (Japanese/Norwegian) Poetry Monument-stone," placed at Sakai Women's Junior College, and later traveled to Norway to present an official photograph of the monument to the Cabinet. She also presented her own haiku tanzaku (a formal presentation and mounting of haiku poems in calligraphic hand) to the Minister of Education, and Prince and Princess of Norway. In 1992, Mikajo founded the "Yosano Akiko Bilingual Poetry Monument-stone" at the Council of Gender Equality, in Oslo, Norway. In the same year, she became a founding patron of the Yosano Akiko Museum, which opened in Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture, in the year 2000.

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Haiku, Personification, Zen, Translation, Now and Zen
Art Durkee (2008)


More than one English-language haijin (someone who makes haiku) has felt themselves up against the wall. The wall is the Western belief that anthropomorphism and personification are fallacies, are fiction, are no-nos in poetry. They use Western literary-critical terms like pathetic fallacy (now there's a term designed to be a negative from the get-go) or Eliot's objective correlative. They talk about subject-object relations, which is a Western bias built on millennia of assumptions about the nature of reality: that the "I" of the ego is separate from the "thou" of the world, that we are separate from nature, that we are in fact as Descartes claimed, ghosts in the shell.

But the best haiku are not snapshots, not metaphors, not bridges between the disembodied mind of the poet's language and the untouchable putridness of the natural world—the best haiku are deeply embedded participations. They are unifications, not bridges; participations, not observations; whole embodied experiences, not words about disembodied theoretical experiences. If you don't fall into the poem, into the world of the poem, if you don't feel it in your own body, the poem is not finished. Some would still call that sort of embodiment a personification or pathetic fallacy, of course: how we love to cling to our postural habits and defenses.

Rather than personification, I would say identification-with: the idea of becoming-one-with. I think we get closest to this when we talk about participation. Not subject/object relation, but as Harry Hay put it, subject-subject consciousness. No separation: not-other. Nothing, no-thing.

The point of identification, obviously, is for the reader to complete the haiku experience by embodying it, by being the cricket or apple blossom, rather than just reading about it and keeping that mental (illusory) separation. No separation between "subject" and "object" is what Harry Hay means by subject-subject consciousness, in part. Again, this has deep parallels in the Western mystical tradition, too.

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Nobuyuki Kobayashi — ISSA
1763 — 1827
by Janice M Bostok

The spring moon
Shines Godlike
Upon a flower thief
At work on a hill.         1

Issa was born in Kashiwabara village, Japan, the first son of a farmer. His childhood name was Yatarô but he was registered with Nobuyuki as his first name and Kobayashi as his surname. Issa did not have a happy or fortuitous life. While he was still young (at the age of about three) his mother died. His grandmother took over raising him. Later she also died and his father remarried. His stepmother eventually forced Issa to leave home at the age of thirteen.

He traveled to Edo, which is now the capital, Tokyo. City people scorned country folk and called the peasants 'grey starlings'. Issa wrote over five thousand haiku during his lifetime, many of them about starlings and sparrows and other animals and insects.

joining the starlings
a night of winter

dejected —
even among sparrows
a stepchild

Issa remained in Tokyo for twenty years, living in poverty. He became seriously interested in writing haiku at the age of twenty five. When his teacher died he succeeded him as leader of the group. However, this position didn't sit comfortably with him and he chose to wander through the southwest of Japan until 1801, when his father died and he returned to the village where he was born.

As pine trees grow all over Japan Issa wrote many poems about them. They became a symbol for shelter for the homeless.

in pine-tree shade
eating, sleeping
60 provinces!

Even though he inherited his father's property, his stepmother and stepbrother managed to keep him from moving into the dwelling that was rightfully his and he lived in a rented hut at the edge of the village.

sparrows at the gate —
the brothers' first

well here it is
my final home?
five feet of snow

my dear old village
every memory of home
pierces like a thorn

In 1815 Issa married a young woman of twenty eight years of age. He was fifty two. His wife produced four children all of whom died in infancy. His wife also died in the final childbirth.

evening falls —
a stepchild sparrow
cries in the pine

It appears he really did live in the shadow beneath the pines even in the village of his birth where he should have been settled at home.

Issa married a second time and seemed happy at last. By this time he had moved into his rightful home, although he enjoyed a casual lifestyle. Because of his own treatment by society and closer to home, by his step-family, Issa felt compassion and tolerance for all life, even the fleas and flies.

don't chase, don't chase
that flea has kids

don't swat the fly!
wringing hands
wringing feet

Issa's second wife produced a girl heir for him. Unfortunately the baby was actually born after his death and he never saw her. He was sixty five years of age when he died.

Issa (Cup-of-tea) will be remembered for his masterpiece 'Ora ga haru': The Year Of My Life, 1819. (A Haibun) It should be noted that the particular sect of Buddhism to which he belonged (Shinshû) was a lot more liberal than what Bashô believed in. His wanderings are somewhat more social.
Not consciously developing a style as Bashô may seem to have done, nor writing as formally as Buson, Issa had a personality all his own. He used the local dialects and the language of daily conversation. For us, today, his work appears to manifest the true philosophy of the Buddhist intent without the obvious religious rhetoric which many writers get caught up in. We love him for his simple warmth of humanity and his compassion for all living things.

There is a story, whether it is true or not, that the daimyo Maeda, the great Lord Kaga sent for Issa to come and speak about haiku. Issa refused, because although still a peasant, he would not be 'ordered' to appear before nobility. It may be a true story because Issa also shows some of this 'nerve' in his poems.

losing the contest
surprise, surprise
the lord's mum won.        2

Rather than the ancient anecdotes, I prefer the present-day novel titled Haiku Guy by David G. Lanoue, published by Red Moon Press, in the USA. It's a hilarious, loosely termed historical novel based on Issa — or Cup-of-tea. It is said he was called Cup-of-one-tea because he only stopped to have one cup of tea and then continued on his travels.

It is now thought that many of Issa's childhood poems were written from memory when he was older and more mature. Considering he only began writing haiku seriously at the age of 25, this is probably the case. But it is known that his father wrote reasonably accomplished haiku, and Issa attended the home of an educated man in the village, to learn to read and write. This educated man wrote haiku. So it is possible that he knew quite a bit about writing haiku before he left the village.

It also seems that many agree his poems about animals, bird, and insects are actually about his own lifetime circumstances. He was the orphaned sparrow in his mountain village; he was the peasant starling in the city; and he was the homeless cat and dog looking for shelter and love after returning to his home village — where his house burnt down.

Since haiku has become known in the west we have been told not to use simile, metaphor, or personification. Issa certainly used all of these devices in his poems. If we carefully study many of the Japanese master's works we can find a similar usage in their poems, but perhaps not as exaggerated as in Issa's case.

For example Bashõ wrote about 'should I hold it in my hand, it would melt from my tears, the mountain snow'. He was really talking about his dead mother's lock of hair! Now translators are saying 'his dead mother's lock of hair'. Japanese haiku is full of simile, metaphor and personification.

Many non-haiku poems can be interpreted in this manner. The layers of meaning are what makes a poem great. However, because of Issa's compassion we sometimes get caught up in his style of writing and want to share our own understanding and enjoyment of our own environment. But we must remember poetry is language on the cutting edge, as we say. We would no longer think of a fly wringing its hands in begging mode, unless it was a giant cyber space monster perhaps!

In our cynical/belief/non-belief confusion we are more likely to say 'don't swat that fly, it may be your reincarnated grandmother'!

What we should remember is that poems of any form should read naturally, make sense and be mature in tone and capable of triggering the reader's response. What we know is that Issa was a priest-like gentle, homeless person who wandered around for most of his life searching for that zen-like acceptance and peace. Hopefully, each of us will find it in our own way and express it in our own language of today's lifestyle. And, perhaps we should also remember what Bashô said: ...'if one is to write good haikai, one must interpret and describe the lowly and the commonplace with high serious intent' 3

1 The Year Of My Life, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles. USA. 1972. P.40
2 chrysanthemum
3 The Year Of My Life, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles. USA. 1972. P. 17

All poems quoted (unless otherwise stated) are translated by David G. Lanoue.
© 2004 Janice M Bostok

This article is one of a series of four and was first published in Yellow Moon 16 2004 pp. 33-34

Enjoy some of Janice's work here:

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


ha wa ha wa mo/fuyu no kozue wo/naku karasu

"leaves, leaves"
cry out the crows
from winter treetops

Yokoi Yayu - 1702-1783

English version: The Art of Haiku: Its History Through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters,  Stephen Addiss (Author)

Publisher: Shambhala Publications Inc (2012)
ISBN-10: 1590308867
ISBN-13: 978-1590308868

A Hokku and Haiga Master
His grandfather was a student of the Teimon school of hokku.

The poet his grandfather studied under was Kitamura Kigin (1624-1705). Kigin being the hokku master of Basho.
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page



Glad to see this site is still up.
Part 7 - The Nature of English Haiku
Appropriateness of Subject Matter:

Following on, the topic, and others, are picked up, with a list...

Literary Kicks
Opinion: Essential Elements of Haiku
pottygok • August 13th, 2003
"Every successful haiku poet keeps a mental list of things that should not be part of a haiku. This is my list of things to avoid..."

I think pottygok aka Joshua Gage manages to successfully incorporate some of the don'ts as well as do's:

See how Joshua Gage skilfully navigates the issue back in his 2008 collection:

Joshua Gage
vanZeno Press
Professional Reading Series (2008)

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Thanks, Alan. This is a useful item to pin to the memo board.


Third Prize

a small lonely snail
is glad and crying for rain
on a hydrangea


Yusuke Fujikawa
15th International "Kusamakura" haiku competition 2010

Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Its honor blown away
an orchid
is laughing

Ban'ya Natsuishi (Ginyu, No 69, 2016)
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page


Anthropormophism - Some Thoughts by Jane Reichhold

It is always great to return to Jane Reichhold. And always remember Jane's name has 2xh! Reichhold!

purple loosestrife
the drift of candle wax
on a breeze

Alan Summers

i.m. Jane Reichhold 1937-2016
cattails September 2016 Edition
Jane Reichhold Tribute Page 177

That isn't quite personification but I imagine Jane as a drift of candle wax creating both art and poetry burning the midnight oil, or rather candles.

I guess haiku should embrace as many or at least almost as many poetic techniques as other forms of poetry. Why?

As someone who has led two senku (1000 verse renku) I've discovered that when people totally relax their way of talking enters the rhythm of poetry, and when we do that, anything and everything can happen!

Recently I've found myself reaching out to symbolism, personification and various lyrical aspects for my single line and three line haiku.

a click and clank the kitchen awake and demanding

Alan Summers
Collection: Forbidden Syllables (Bones Library May 2020)

Perhaps it's my imagination! :-) But also, alongside a feeling of personification, if someone, whether home, relatives, or a b&b is invisibly getting breakfast, dinner, supper even ready, it's as if it's the kitchen itself, demanding my presence!

late night television spills its whisky tumbler

Alan Summers
Collection: Forbidden Syllables (Bones Library May 2020)

On rare occasions I'll have a late night watching streaming video, or back to back documentaries of classic albums or about Kate Bush, David Bowie, Elton John etc... I imagine nights without  me when the television either misses my presence and sipping malt whisky or a Scotch, and gets tipsy in my honor. Yes, pure personification, but is it the author, or the television personifying?

lemon-scented hospital beds how they hold our hands as blackbirds

Alan Summers
Publication credit: Weird Laburnum (July 1st 2020)
three haikai verses

This verse came about through combining multiple prompts as well as getting into my writer's fugue:

I love the symbolism and personification, and it's a nod and bow to the great care during the ongoing covid-19 crisis by the staff who are the National Health Service of the U.K.

thrift shop dolls pose as passing trade

Glint ebook collection by Alan Summers
Proletaria   politics philosophy phenomena  (February 2020)

Is it the poet using personification or the shop, or are the life-scale dolls taking control?

I turn wood to iron
into an eagle

Alan Summers
Grit, Grace, and Gold–Haiku Celebrating the Sports of Summer by Kit Pancoast Nagamura
Kodansha (April 2020)

Of course the names 'wood'; 'iron' and 'eagle' are golfing terms, but isn't there alchemy in so many things, including personification?

meandering river
both barrels of sunlight
head a goose home

Alan Summers
Half A Rainbow
Haiku Nook: An Anthology ed. Jacob Salzer & The Nook Editorial Staff (2020)
Dedicated to Rachel Sutcliffe (1977-2019) & Haiku Nook G+

We have often personified nature from ancient times that still lingers with us. Nature is a force, and it's only natural that we will bring personification into our poems from time to time. Here it's as if the sun bears two shotgun barrels (in a peaceful manner) to help a single goose home. Is the goose a bird, or is it me?

a dreaming forest busy as Hitchcock

Alan Summers
The Comfort of Crows
Hifsa Ashraf and Alan Summers
(Velvet Dusk Publishing, December 2019)

One of the oldest personifications is that of our once giant country-covering forests! Here I have combined the famous films of Alfred Hitchcock (and Alma Reville) such as Pyscho and The Birds etc... But of course it's also not personification at the same time! We often romanticise nature, but it's a hive of altercation and hunting and killing, whether plant, insect, or animal!

in jars our tongues instruct us as rain and birds

Alan Summers
Publication credit: Sonic Boom Issue Eighteen (1st August 2020)

This has nothing to do with the unexpected discovery of a certain jar! I just liked the idea of jars where our tongues help us become like the rain and the birds.

twilight thickens
into the cry of a baby
shooting stars

i.m. Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong

Alan Summers
Anthology credit: EarthRise Rolling Haiku Collaboration 2020 "Year of the Nurse"

This is an incredibly sad story of an NHS nurse who died from covid-19. She was the first of many heroines and heros who did not deserve to die alongside her baby. Here I both personify twilight as the cry of a baby who is 'shooting' stars, but also in memory of the nurse's baby who will be forever creating shooting stars.

What's your personification, your guilty secret or pleasure?

Alan Summers
co-founder, Call of the Page
Alan Summers,
founder, Call of the Page

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